From St Vincent to the Grenadines
“ Tourists are very welcome here in the Caribbean, but let’s not pretend that this is anything other than a privilege.”
When we left you last week, we were trapped in the Blue Lagoon in the south of St Vincent. The Blue Lagoon is surrounded by coral. It has two entrances - one is on the south side where the surf breaks over the coral on either side of a narrow deep water channel where a boat we met in Europe was wrecked last month. The other channel is on the west side and is marked with channel markers but is only suitable for shallow draft boats. We thought our boat could get in through the west channel with room to spare under the keel but the coral must have grown in the year or two since the pilot book was written and when we entered last week, we had 0.0 metres under the keel. So we faced a choice - exit through the deeper southern channel; the owner of our mooring buoy, Kelvin, offered to pilot us out for free, or brave the shallow but wider western channel where we might loosen the keel bolts as it scraped along the bottom.
Well before we departed, we wanted to see a little of St Vincent. The buses in St Vincent, like in Barbados, are amazing. They use mini buses instead of big buses, which means you don’t have to wait ages as they fill up fast and they go almost anywhere you can think of. The assistant to the driver fits people in like a jigsaw puzzle by directing you where to sit. Generally they are young - they have to be. Often they are just crouching as the bus hurtles up a hill and round a bend when all the seats are full of people squashed in. Music blares loudly and it is nice to have someone on hand to ask where to get off when you don’t know exactly where you are going. We arrived at Wallilabalou, the location where they filmed Pirates of the Caribbean. We walked down a very steep hill to get to the village in the bay. We had debated whether to anchor here, but it is difficult with the currents and you have to pay someone to take lines back to tie them to a palm tree. We spoke to an English skipper who had grounded as low tide came and then broke one of his stern lines while motoring back into the deeper water. St Vincent is not an easy place to anchor and we now understand why many people go straight to Bequia in the Grenadines and then get a ferry back here to visit.
However, we were very glad we visited Wallilabou. The props left from the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean are amazing, with even the crew notes left behind and a giant façade of a building with scaffolding behind it as they didn’t need to build the whole building, just film the frontage of it. We took a rowing boat trip round the coast passing between rocks and into the cave which was used as a set location in the film. Unfortunately, with Coronavirus, the local people have lost a lot of income as it used to be a popular cruise ship stop. This meant they were very careful to share out the work between them as another yacht came in wanting help with its lines. There is a lovely restaurant there and we had a fantastic vegan meal with fresh juice. We then walked to a local waterfall with a swimming hole set in beautiful gardens with amazing vines and huge bamboos all along the stream. We would highly recommend a visit to Wallilabou. Everything was a very reasonable price and it is a different experience. The other experience we had really wanted to do in St Vincent was to climb the volcano, La Soufrière. It erupted last year, which eroded the clearly signposted path so we knew we would have to pay for a guide. However, as we had arrived during the Easter bank holidays we were told that there wouldn’t be buses running on Sundays, or Easter Monday. We were paying quite a lot for the mooring buoy in the Blue Lagoon and we would have had to get a taxi up to the north of the island to do the trek or wait until Tuesday. So we decided to leave for Bequia in the Grenadines on the Sunday. We are hoping to visit the Leeward islands next year and there will be more volcanoes there to visit.
So we had our choice about how to exit the Blue Lagoon. Kelvin turned up in the morning around High Tide and asked which way we would like to exit. Luciano was happy to take the southern channel under Kelvin’s guidance. I, on the other hand, thought no way was I risking the boat being smashed up. We went through the western channel and hoped that by leaving at high tide we would have a little leeway. It was not to be and we had 0.0 metres under the keel again on our exit. We didn’t feel any resistance though so hopefully no damage was done! We won’t be going back to the Blue Lagoon though. We had a beautiful sail to Bequia (pronounced Beckway), our first of the Grenadine islands. As we approached the waves started to get bigger, but as we turned, they were coming behind us so we were almost surfing them. We anchored in Admiralty Bay off Princess Margaret beach. While there we spotted an American sailing boat that we had met in Rodney Bay in St Lucia so we dropped them an email. They dropped round the next morning and invited us to a beach BBQ. We came by and were introduced to a few of the sailing couples in their network who have all been cruising for a long time and have a wealth of knowledge. We visited the little town of Port Elizabeth. Bequia is very well set out for sailors. The town is pretty with good shops and chandleries. Our favourite feature was a company that sends a boat out to collect and return your laundry and to fuel your boat. Doing the laundry is normally an operation that takes several hours when you are at anchor. Dinghying to town, carrying it to a laundrette. Waiting for the washer and dryer, dinghying it back. This way they collected it and returned it the next day while we could get on with other things. The sailing network pointed out the wind was going to drop and so it would be a good opportunity to visit the Tobago Cays, which are the pearl of the Grenadines but are very low lying so it is best to visit when the wind is light as there isn’t much shelter. We decided to take their advice and leave Bequia to sail south.
We decided to stop first at the island of Canouan, closer to the Tobago Cays and then we could keep an eye on the wind forecast and it would be a very short trip from there. We arrived in Canouan after a much shorter than expected sail. Somehow we were doing a consistent 7-8 knots of speed despite the current coming from the side, which we were adjusting for. The wind was moderate and it was a very pleasant but fast sail, using the Hydrovane to steer. We arrived while it was still morning. The anchorage was extremely shallow - we arrived at low tide and we had 1.7 metres under the keel. We carefully dropped our anchor in a sandy patch. I swam to check it and it was holding perfectly. As we completed the usual post sailing tasks, putting on the anchor bridle, putting the instrument and sail covers back on, coiling and stowing the ropes we had used, we saw a couple of turtles lifting their little heads out of the water to breathe. We were excited to get snorkelling! We took our dinghy over to a tiny rocky bay where there are supposed to be reefs and used our dinghy anchor for the first time to keep it in place while we snorkelled. We were not disappointed, seeing a range of coral and reef fish and a brown and white spotted moray eel. We then dinghied along the rocky coast and jumped off at another spot again with a tiny sandy beach. We were feeling slightly cold after all that time in the water and climbed up on a big black volcanic rock. It was wonderfully warm and gave us a nice vantage point to look out over the bay.
From there we dinghied into the town. The dock was very high and a fisherman gave us some assistance in using the anchor at the stern of the dinghy to stop it moving forward under the dock where it could potentially get damaged. He wanted to sell us some fish and seemed disappointed when we said we were vegans. To say thank you for helping us with the dinghy, we bought him a drink at the beachside rum shack where we met some very friendly young children, one carrying a two week old pudgy puppy. We sat and drank our rum punches with the fisherman who told us he has lived and fished in Canouan all his life. We visited the little tourist office, but were told that the peak of Canouan is not accessible as it has been gated off by Soho House hotel, part of the exclusive chain. It seems a little unfair that these private companies can come in and close off half the island to local people. Nearby Mustique is a private island and is similar in that you are very limited in where you are allowed to walk. We didn’t visit Mustique for that reason, although there is something to be said in what the author of the pilot book says, that if sailors don’t go there then they have no reason to keep these areas public. They remain closed off. The original inhabitants of the island now work for the rich white people that have holiday homes there*
The Caribbean islands are beautiful, but the inequalities that exist in the world are in very stark relief here. You have the obvious examples of the looming superyachts. One we saw here in Canouan has a helicopter on top. Most sailors though, are not rich by western standards; most are ordinary retired people who use their pensions, savings and rent from their house to fund their cruising lifestyles. We are on the ‘poorer’ end of the sailing spectrum and will have to stop and work soon, but that is mostly because we are younger and have had less working years to save. However, wherever we go, we clearly have more money and leisure time than most of the local people we meet. And that is (in my case) merely due to having been born in a western country and in Luciano’s case, being an immigrant as a younger man to a western country. Indirectly we are able to do this because we lived and worked for most of our lives in a country that developed and industrialised on the back of slavery funds. We visit the islands of people who are poorer than us because their ancestors were enslaved and in most cases thereafter depleted by colonial nations. This is an uncomfortable truth. Obviously local people do benefit financially from tourism of all kinds and travel does help everyone to see different cultures. But it is unfair that it is mostly only the world’s privileged that get to travel very far. Like the people from Mustique that were interviewed for the article in The Independent,* the people of Canouan we spoke to have had little to say about the fencing off of large swathes of their island by Soho House hotel and there may be a range of reasons why they don’t want to talk about that to me. And why should they. The Mustique Wikipedia** page is full of paternal emphasis on philanthropic projects to support the local community. However, as The Independent article makes clear, the long hours away from their families and obsequious attitude they have to take to keep their jobs means these ‘benefits’ come with a caveat. If tourists come, local people will create their own jobs and these jobs will tend to involve skill, creativity and ingenuity, not servicing the rich and famous while the majority of the profits go to a foreign company. The Tet Paul Community project in St Lucia is a case in point. Local people often also tend to enjoy going to the beach in their leisure time too (see our podcast with Tour Guide Bertha Grant). Sadly this entitlement by corporations to privatise large parts of islands is not limited to the Caribbean, as an article published yesterday in The Guardian with reference to French Polynesia makes clear.*** There is no justification for closing off beaches or keeping local people out of areas of their island by locked gates. Tourists are very welcome here in the Caribbean, but let’s not pretend that this is anything other than a privilege. The general trend in the Caribbean is in favour of throwing off the vestiges of colonialism; the move for independence is growing in Martinique, the tours of the UK royal family in Grenada and Belize had to be cancelled at the last minute and several Caribbean countries, have made it very clear that they aim to become republics in the short term. As we saw in Laborie in St Lucia, when a group of sailors ignored the fishermen who were trying to talk to them, they were clearly identified as ‘racists.’ Nobody deserves to be ignored. If you don’t want a service, then politely say so. And don’t look down on people for trying to make a living.
* Aitkenhead, D., 1997. A Tale of Two Communities. [online] TheIndependent.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/a-tale-of-two-communities-1276546.html?amp> [Accessed 23 April 2022].
** En.wikipedia.org. 2022. Mustique - Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustique> [Accessed 23 April 2022].
*** the Guardian. 2022. Private paradise: The French Polynesian island locking locals out of beaches. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/22/private-paradise-the-french-polynesian-island-locking-locals-out-of-beaches> [Accessed 23 April 2022].
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